Ben Cunningham is an old friend of mine. We both grew up on Cape Ann in Massachusetts but we lost touch over the years as, well, this happens. But about a year ago, I started noticing the leather work of someone named Benjamin Bott popping up on Instagram and Facebook. Benjamin Bott was being featured by a few of my favorite stores like Papa Wolf Supply Co. and Skowhegan Dry Goods, so I started following him. Shortly after, I connected the dots and realized that my old friend Ben Cunningham was the man behind Benjamin Bott.
The Benajmin Bott instagram feed is a steady stream of handsome lust-worthy items; mostly hand-stitched wallets. And his most recent offering, a leather valet, looks perfect for keeping keys, wallets and other pocket detritus organized. I caught up with Cunningham for a brief Q&A to learn about his process, how he got into leather work and also to hear what else he was working on.
Also, for this post I'm really excited to share the photos of another old Cape Ann friend Saoirse Donegan who took these great images of Cunningham working.
OK, so we've known each other for a long time but I didn't know you were making leather goods until someone named Benjamin Bott - not the name I know you by - started popping up all over my Facebook and Instagram. When did you get into working with leather and who is Benjamin Bott?
I started working with leather about three years ago. My buddy gave me some leather scraps to work with and that's how I made my first iPhone case. It was a process of trial and error-- an important process that has shaped how I create my products and myself as a craftsman. The company name comes from my family. Bott is my middle name which comes from my mom's side of the family, and they are all artistic and super creative, so I wanted my company name to pay homage to those family members who have always inspired me. I also love the simplicity of the BB as a logo.
What first attracted you to working with leather?
I've always loved the process of making things with my hands. My last two wallets that I had only lasted a year and needed some good old Yankee ingenuity to hold them together: duct tape. They didn't fare well with age! This inspired me to try my hand at making some quality, handmade small leather goods. As well leather has always been something that has attracted me. I love its durability, smell, the color options, but mostly I love the idea of making something that is only going to break in and get better with time.
How did you learn to work with leather? And where do you source your supplies?
Like I said above, I am totally self taught. I use a system of trial and error, refining my process with each piece that I make until I get the look and the quality that I am satisfied with. The internet, Instagram in particular, has proved to be a very good teacher! It was/is a great resource for everything from figuring out how something works to where to buy the right kind of thread and leather, to marketing and making sales contacts. When I first started, I would search through people's Instagram feeds for pictures from their work benches, looking for tools that they used and how they used them. Once I figured the tool's purpose, I could then apply it to my own work. I think this is one of the best parts about being self taught-- I still get such a rush out of the "ah-ha" moments when I figure out how to streamline or improve something that I've been working on. I buy my thread from the Maine Thread Company in Lewiston, ME, and my leather is Horween tanned in Chicago, IL.
You just released a catch-all or valet. Do you have plans for other new products? What are some things you'd like to make but haven't yet? Other projects you're excited about?
I just made a new wallet called the Etty-- now available at benjaminbott.com. Normally I don't do custom work, but when I heard a customer's idea for a wallet, I was sold! He wanted to incorporate the essential elements of what I already make with the addition of a practical and, more importantly, cool detail-- an elastic band around the outside of the Card and Cash Holster. As for projects that I am excited about, I have a couple of orders for tote bags in the works. It's been a while since I made them, and I am looking forward to designing a tote bag for men!
Finally, where can people find your work? Customers can purchase through your site and a few stores right?
People can find my leather goods at benjaminbott.com. As for brick and mortar, I've been fortunate enough to be connected to a few awesome stores: Skowhegan Dry Goods (@skowhegndrygoods) in Newburyport MA, Papa Wolf Supply Co. (@papawolfsupplyco) in Dover, NH, and Citizen Fredrick (@citizenfredrick) in Fredrick, MD. It's been awesome to work with store owners who not only care about what they put in their store but also care about how the product is made, who made it, and the story behind it.